Ball & Chain, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi's Blues Union

February 7, 2012

“We’ve got a lot of skin in this game,” says Derek Trucks about going all in with his wife Susan Tedeschi to form the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Both have dismantled successful solo projects to focus on the 11-piece powerhouse. It’s fronted by Tedeschi’s impassioned voice, rooted in swampy rhythm guitar, and complemented by Trucks’ melodic slide licks that often function more like a harmony vocal than traditional lead guitar.

Trucks is perhaps the most revered roots guitarist of his generation, which is a bit paradoxical, because he’s not a typical guitar star. He has truckloads of technique—and his pristine-to-growling tone is highly coveted—but Trucks doesn’t putz around practicing scales, plucking patterns, or tweaking gizmos. The epitome of a natural-born player, Trucks simply does instinctually what most other players could not do with three lifetimes of practice.

“He never practices,” quips Tedeschi, “unless he’s working on a musical idea. He has such a tremendous ear that his listening is like most people’s shedding.”

A dozen years back, Trucks met his match in Tedeschi—a woman whose emotive vocals range from a peep to an atomic explosion, and who can also deliver blues licks that scream, “Mama’s got something to say!” She cuts a greasy, wah-drenched solo on “Love Has Something Else to Say” on the TTB’s debut recording, Revelator [Sony Masterworks], but Trucks takes the rest of the leads. Diehard fans of Tedeschi’s swingfor- the-fences Tele work may feel a bit left out in the cold, but the warmth coming from the two playing in tandem compensates for her lack of solos.

The couple has had to work their schedules around the Allman Brothers Band. Trucks has co-piloted the historic dual-lead guitar vessel alongside stalwart Warren Haynes for more than a decade, but the ABB is finally slowing way down, due to the inevitable health and stamina issues that come with advancing age. (Gregg Allman and Warren Haynes launched solo projects this year.) The Tedeschi Trucks Band is an amalgamation that includes ABB bassist Oteil Burbridge, as well as DTB keyboardist/ flutist Kofi Burbridge, and Mike Mattison on harmony vocals and harp. J.J. Johnson (John Mayer, Doyle Bramhall II) and Tedeschi band alum Tyler Greenwell share drumming duties.

A few years ago, Trucks and Tedeschi decided to build a professional studio behind their Florida home to facilitate more time with their two children. The first fruit from Swamp Raga studios was Trucks’ Grammy Award-winning Already Free, which beat out Tedeschi’s Back to the River for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 2010. It reflected Trucks’ focus on serving the song, and a more collective approach to songcraft.

Revelator is even more about the tunes, and it was crafted by an even larger pool of talents that includes fellow Clapton band cohort Doyle Bramhall II and Soulive guitarist Eric Krasno. While Revelator showcases Trucks and Tedeschi in a much more intimate light than ever before, that doesn’t mean there aren’t gratifying guitar breaks throughout, or that Trucks has forsaken his searing bottleneck. In fact, the album’s intimacy allows the intricacies of Trucks’ singular virtuosity to really shine through.

“The Allman Brothers Band is not going to last forever,” Trucks stated at the end of his June 2009 GP feature. “A time will come in the very near future when I abandon all that stuff and dig in firmly with my thing, or the band with my wife. I welcome the transition.”

That time has clearly arrived.

Why did you decide to form the TTB?
Trucks: After 16 years of doing a solo project, it was time for a change. There were some difficult conversations. I walked some serious miles with the Derek Trucks Band, but everybody understood the reasoning. I don’t think it’s the end of the road for playing with the guys from the DTB individually, but it probably is for that exact lineup or that exact thing.

How did playing lots of cover songs previously as Soul Stew Revival factor in?
Tedeschi: We did Soul Stew for some summer fun. We were still actively doing our own records and touring with our own bands. The real transition was from our solo bands into this project.
Trucks: We tested the waters of working together with Soul Stew Revival. Co-leading a band is a little different because each distinct vision is on the line. I feel it makes this band much more honest because now there are no safety nets.

There are posts online about the TTB such as, “I came to hear Derek wail, and his girl is up there singing the whole time.” And vice versa. What’s your response?
Trucks: I don’t worry about it. When you start a blues band, and then play a Qawwali tune, people think you’ve lost your mind. You can go to an Allman Brothers show right now and hear people shout, “Where’s Duane? How come there’s only one Allman onstage?” or “Where’s Dickey Betts?” I get that stuff all the time. You just have to be a little stubborn and hardheaded about what works.

Keeping time-honored tunes such as “Whipping Post” fresh must be a challenge. Are you an ABB historian to the degree that you can draw on numerous live versions, and quote parts from them during your solos?
Trucks: I can’t recite Duane Allman’s playing on all the live versions of “Whipping Post,” but if somebody hands me a bootleg, I’ll usually listen to it and incorporate some stuff. Keeping tunes fresh is easy when you have an unbelievable rhythm section. Oteil Burbridge has a way of shifting the tonal center that feels like the earth is moving underneath you. I approach those tunes like a jazz musician would approach a standard. There’s the head and the form, and then when it’s time for my solo, I’ll consider the time and key signature and it’s off to the races.
We might play “Whipping Post” on tour once every three or four nights, and when the band is only doing one or two dozen shows a year, that’s not many takes on it. You start thinking it might be the last definitive version of that song ever played. There’s a certain weight and historical significance to each and every time the band plays now because no one knows how many gigs are left. You air it out.

Derek, can you shed some light on the move you make where your right hand is practically perpendicular to the fretboard, with your fingers dangling, that allows you to render superfast passages?
Trucks: I picked that up from watching Victor Wooten and Oteil Burbridge doing their superhuman stuff while we were on the road together, and I worked on it throughout the tour. At first, I was incorporating my thumb, but then I realized I could go faster using only my index finger. I don’t plan that stuff out ahead of time. An opportunity will present itself in the context of a song, and I’ll roll with it.

Derek, what’s the biggest difference about having Susan as your guitar foil rather than Warren Haynes?
Trucks: It is different, but Susan has a thing—especially on straight blues—where she can wipe the floor with anybody.
Tedeschi: Well, that’s nice of him to say. He can play blues all day long, but that is my strength as a guitar player. My style is much more raw than Derek’s. His is so lucid, beautiful, and smooth.
Trucks: It’s not about technique. She has an innate ability to cut through the crap and get right to the point. We do a Bobby Bland blues called “That Did It” a good ways into the set. She hasn’t really soloed all night until then, and when she finally unleashes there’s no reason to play after it. I love Warren and Jimmy Herring to death, but I’ll play after those fools [laughs]. With Sue, I’m not going to friggin’ touch it. She keeps you on the edge of your seat because you don’t know if she’s going to make it through. It’s tightrope walking, but without fail, she gets there. Amazing.
Tedeschi: I can definitely take you to that edge where you think you’re going to fall off the cliff.

It never feels like Derek is going to fall off the cliff.
Tedeschi: Everybody knows it’s going to be fine. There’s no threat of danger. But with me there’s danger [laughs]! But I don’t fall off the cliff. I just want to get that thrill in there.
Trucks: I truly believe that she’s as good as anybody in this generation. There are a lot of technicians out there, but if you heard Sue play one of those tightrope-walking solos, you wouldn’t want to hear any of the new “it” guys afterwards.

Susan, how have you adjusted your playing to accommodate Derek?
Tedeschi: I try to support him on guitar to the best of my ability, which has been lacking in all the other situations except for Clapton’s band. When Derek solos, a lot of people just stop playing, or they don’t really get behind him and help him grow the solo. Oteil does an amazing job of that, so I look to Oteil and Kofi for an indication of when to start playing, when to start building, when to hang on one chord, and when to start changing.

Who are some of your favorite guitarists in terms of being supportive?
Tedeschi: I like to play funky rhythm guitar with a wah, and Freddie Stone is the master, so I’ve been listening to Sly & the Family Stone and learning from him. And Willie Nelson doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his guitar playing. Willie plays nice melodic lines when he does solo, but a lot of the time he’s supporting the song in a very understated, beautiful fashion.

Your level of command is not demonstrated by a lot of women. Do you feel a certain duty to represent?
Tedeschi: I feel a sense of duty to the music and to young women, because I didn’t have many female role models growing up. It took people like Sue Foley and my old guitar player Adrienne Hayes to show me that women could rock—not just sing and play rhythm, but actually rip leads and improvise with anybody at the drop of a hat. I give a lot of credit to B.B. King and Buddy Guy for taking me under their wings and helping me break out of that box.

Can you school us on some female players from the classic blues era who really tore it up on guitar?
Tedeschi: Sister Rosetta Tharpe played ripping leads and killer rhythms while directing a choir and singing her ass off. Memphis Minnie would go up against Big Bill Broonzy and win blues contests with her solos. There weren’t many female blues rippers, but those are two good examples.

Have you seen any promising young girls?
Tedeschi: A ten-year-old girl whose name I can’t recall gave me a DVD. She was playing leads on AC/DC and Neil Young tunes. I was so proud of her. I know there are young girls coming up that are going to start surfacing. Lots of little girls come up to me and say that I inspired them to pick up the guitar.

You both gather your heroes’ autographs on your guitars. Can you name three you have in common?
Trucks: John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, and Willie Nelson. Our common heroes are pretty much across the board. That’s what drew me to Susan in the first place. I mean, how many women can you hang with that revere Buddy Guy and Magic Sam? That’s one of our biggest connections.
Tedeschi: Muddy Waters made me want to play. Hearing Magic Sam made go out and get a guitar.
Trucks: In a way, we share a beautiful disease. It’s nice to have your partner and your bandmate get off on the same stuff, and there’s a lot of it. We’ve been incredibly fortunate to do more than meet our heroes. Together we’ve recorded with Dave Brubeck—he’s in his 90s—and Herbie Hancock. I’m not talking about just sitting in, but having real conversations and real musical moments with people like Les Paul, and John Lee Hooker.
Tedeschi: “The day you stop learning is the day you’re in the grave,” John Lee Hooker said to me. He was in his 70s at the time, and it was great advice because as soon as you get comfortable and start cruising, your music loses excitement.

What guitar player made the biggest impact on both of you?
Trucks: It’s probably B.B., just because he’s the guy historically. Actually, it’s all three Kings—Freddie, B.B., and Albert— and I’d say Eric Clapton is also in that conversation. Susan grew up a massive Eric fan, and the Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs record was huge for me.

Whose playing do you keep a close eye and ear on?
Trucks: I love Jack Pearson. He’s an unsung hero. Jack is a Nashville session player who actually had the [slide] chair in the Allman Brothers between Warren and me for about a year. He’s comfortable playing everything from old Piedmont blues on acoustic—he knows it up and down—to straight-ahead jazz. Eric Krasno and Jimmy Herring are close friends, but also players I respect because of where they’re coming from, and because they’re constantly pushing themselves to get better.

What’s at the heart of the Krasno connection?
Trucks: He’s truly about making songs great. He’s got the mindset of a composer and a producer. The same thing that connected me with Doyle connected me with Krasno. It’s a lot more than guitarslinger BS. The vision is a lot wider. Kraz is comfortable in a lot of different genres, where most guitar players would be fish out of water.
Tedeschi: Derek isn’t focused on guitar riffs or licks—he’s not a shredder like some of those guys I played with on the Experience Hendrix tour. Shredders are not songoriented in the pure sense, and a lot of them won’t do a song unless they’ve had time to figure it all out, which is fine. Classical musicians are the same way. I studied clarinet and piano, but once I started playing guitar, the theory went out the window. Now I’m more about improvising melodies in the rhythm of the moment.

What guitars are you rendering your visions on these days?
Tedeschi: I play a teal 1993 Fender American Standard Telecaster with a rosewood neck. The front pickup is wired to give me the crisp, crystalline tone that Teles are known for, but without being too bright or harsh.

Do you use a certain kind of pick or strings to keep the brightness in check?
Tedeschi: I either use my fingers, or a heavy Jim Dunlop pick, and I usually use a standard pack of D’Addario 11s. If the strings are too thin, I tend to over-bend.
Trucks: My main road guitar is a 2000 Gibson ’61 SG reissue with a stoptail bridge in place of the vibrato arm. Its loaded with ’57 Classic humbuckers and strung with DR nickel-plated strings gauged .011, .014. .017, .026, .036, and .046. I tune it to open E [E, B, E, G#, B, E, low to high], and my tech, Bobby Tis, installed different tone caps and volume tapers. [According to Tis, George Alessandro of Alessandro High-End Products makes the custom volume pots and .022uF old-fashioned wax tone capacitors. Tis also confirmed that the Derek Trucks Signature SG should debut in 2011 as a part of Gibson’s 50th Anniversary Series of SGs. Trucks has been waiting until Gibson can exactly match the guitar to the specifications of his own instrument.]

Do you own a vintage ’61?
Trucks: I do, and it has that vintage magic, but I don’t take it or my other vintage guitars on the road. I think of those as the kids’ college funds.

Are you using your mid-’60s Super Reverbs on the road with the TTB?
Trucks: Yes. I have three or four blackface Supers, and lately I’ve been playing the one that works. Overseas touring has done a number on them. We load a chassis into one of a few different 4x10 cabinets. Sometime we use two Webers up top and two Tone Tubbys on the bottom. Sometimes we use Pyle Drivers. We use whatever combination sounds best in the room that night. It’s been changing so much because I’ve been blowing an amp a night for whatever reason.

What rig are you using with the Allman Brothers these days?
Trucks: I’ve been using a ’63 Fender Tube Reverb unit in front of a custom 100-watt Paul Reed Smith amp that’s kind of modeled on Duane’s 50-watt Marshall—the Fillmore Marshall. It’s got a lot of headroom, but it always keeps that growl and attack. It runs pretty hot. I don’t like playing at such a high volumes, but it’s one of the few amps that really feels like my Fender feels on a good night. I have complete control. I can get it to sing, or breathe, or bark.
[Tis adds that when the fabled amp Duane Allman used to record The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East “surfaced,” they took pictures of the electronics and sent them to Paul Reed Smith, who noticed it was wired like a bass amp with Ampeg SVT-style tubes, as well as a few other idiosyncrasies. Smith did his best to reverse engineer it.]

What’s your main stage amp, Susan?
Tedeschi: I use a blackface Fender Super Reverb Reissue, but the reverb doesn’t always work, so I have to kick it—crappy Super Reverb Reissue [laughs]. I used to use old ones until all my ex-boyfriends took all my amps. I use an additional 80-watt Victoria 4x10 cabinet that Buddy Guy gave me back in ’98, when we were on tour together. It looks like a tweed Bassman. I use a handwired Moollon Overdrive if I need to amp it up real quick for a solo I can hear over the band.

What wah do you use?
Tedeschi: I use a Vox wah because the timing—the length of the wah—is weird on other ones. It’s got to sing. But I really haven’t found the perfect wah yet. I got to play one of Hendrix’s Vox wahs—as well as his white Woodstock Strat—when I did the Experience Hendrix tour. My tech was carrying it around all excited. Actually, it had been hot-rodded. That wah had the sound I’m looking for but can never find. It had more dynamic range. Push it all the way forward and it’s real bright, rock it back and it’s all washed out and warm. I was excited just to see and touch it.

Dunlop introduced the Derek Trucks Signature slide this year. What insights can you provide, and what took you so long to do it?
Trucks: It’s essentially the same large Dunlop Pyrex slide that I’ve used for ten years, but they are all slightly different in size. I tried to get mine a little more uniform. I’m naturally apprehensive about doing a signature anything. I finally agreed to the slide because I didn’t have to change anything— it’s exactly what I use.

Is it designed to match the circumference of your ring finger?
Trucks: No. I used their standard large slide for so long, I just adapted to that.

Your finger grew to fit?
Trucks: I think so [laughs]. I’ve been playing it since I was a kid, so once my finger filled the slide it stopped growing.

Have you made any major modifications to your studio since recording Already Free?
Trucks: We asked Jim Scott to produce Revelator, and he ended up co-producing it with me because it turns out my studio is very similar to his. We even use the same board—a mid-’70s Neve. Our main inadequacy was the vocal booth. “Where’s Susan going to sing live with a view of everybody?” he said. I immediately realized we’d found Susan’s champion. She hasn’t really had that on her past few records. She’s a chick singer—everybody knows better than the chick singer.
Bobby Tis and I immediately got to work. I don’t know how building a room inside a room makes both sides feel bigger, but it suddenly felt like a living, breathing studio. A lot of the live vocals made the record, and Susan could also take live guitar solos. Cutting takes all together pushed everyone to play better.

Did you change your approach to recording guitar in any significant way?
Trucks: Yes. I realized that a cranked Super Reverb is great onstage, but you can actually get bigger guitar sounds by playing quieter in the studio. We would usually set up two or three amps—maybe a couple of Fender Deluxe Reverbs and a Pro Reverb, or some other combination of old blackface amps.
[Tis says a pair of ’63 Deluxe Reverbs or ’64 Vibroluxes were the primary rhythm tracking amps, and that late-’60s Princetons were used for dirty tones. A 1963 Fender Reverb unit was used in front of all the non-reverb amps.]
If I used the Super at all, it was very little. I usually run my amp volume around 7 or 8 live, but that sounded small when I listened back in the control room. If I turned the gain up in the control room and the amp down to 3 or 4, there was just enough gain to make it sing, without sounding overly compressed. If you let the sound breathe—like a good singer—it sounds bigger. That was a major revelation for us both.

What are the curveball guitars and tunings on Revelator?
Trucks: I used a ’65 Gibson Firebird on “Learn How to Love” and “Don’t Let Me Slide,” and I dropped my usual open-E tuning down a step to D. When we play “Don’t Let Me Slide” live, I stay in E and alter the way I play it—but I break out a detuned guitar for “Learn How to Love.” It sounds great with less tension on the strings. Actually, “Come See About Me” is also in open D. I played my old National, which is probably from the mid ’30s. It’s pretty funky looking with somewhat of a sunburst finish painted on it.
Tedeschi: Derek and I tracked the acoustic guitars on “Midnight in Harlem” together. We sat on two stools facing each other with a big microphone in the middle. Derek played a Martin and I played my Tacoma that Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon [of Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble] gave me when we were on tour together.

How did the majority of the tracking go down?
Trucks: We tracked the band, including rhythm guitars, in about three weeks, and then went the extra mile to craft some of the final vocals and a few guitar solos. The pressure built on Susan and me because some tracks sounded so good without the finished vocal and the guitar solo. You start thinking that you’d better make a very musical statement.

“Until You Remember” is a tune in 6/8 with gospel and R&B flavors that builds slowly, and then climaxes with a slide solo. There’s something about the way you work your melodies in F minor blues over the C#maj7 harmonic context that achieves a certain depth and tension. Can you shed some light on that?
Trucks: It starts off feeling like an Otis Redding tune, and then the chorus is a total theme change. That’s one of my favorite chordal moves we’ve recorded to date. I don’t know why that C#maj7 feels so powerful there, but it does stand out. I put the solo off until last because I wanted to hear it first. Over the course of a week, I constructed that solo in my head. I’m kind of bouncing between playing through the chord changes and playing blues in F while trying to think like a gospel singer. You’re in and out—that’s the tension—laying out those blue notes. It was the most daunting solo on the record.

You have a way of ripping into phrases, starting below and sliding up to the note. How do you decide where to start, and how do you hit the destination note so accurately?
Trucks: I do it naturally—like winding up for a punch. I didn’t even realize what I was doing until somebody pointed it out to me. I was surprised when I listened back to a live tape. I actually tried to stop doing it afterwards, but it wasn’t comfortable because I was thinking too much. Some of the ripping sound comes from scraping over the strings with the thumb of my plucking hand while I’m muting.

How did you develop such spot-on intonation?
Trucks: Obviously there is a physical element to that, but I believe accurate intonation is a matter of ear training. You have to be able to hear microtonal differences in order to play microtonally. It comes from listening very intently.

Have you been listening to George Harrison lately? Your lyrical slide playing on “Don’t Let Me Slide” and “Ball and Chain” brings him to mind.
Trucks: Not a ton, but I do believe playing Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity” with Clapton at Crossroads rubbed off on me a bit. I had to learn one of Harrison’s slide lines, and it finally struck me how lyrical his playing was and how much vibe he had.

“Ball and Chain” has an unusual harmonic structure. It has a very dominant 7th tonality on the intro/break, a creepy minor verse aesthetic, and a major vibe in the chorus. How did that chord progression come together?
Tedeschi: Oliver Wood [King Johnson, the Wood Brothers] came down and was kicking around the “Ball and Chain” melody and chorus. I had been messing with the verse melody for a week or so before he got there, so it was a collision of two different ideas—a Frankenstein. The trick was finding the pre-chorus—a way to get from one idea to the other—because it doesn’t work if you just slap the verse and the chorus together.
Trucks: I love playing over the changes on “Ball and Chain.” I tried maybe ten different approaches for the solo. At the end of day, it came down to the feeling and the meaning of the tune. I’d think about the lyrics, and try to make the guitar solo represent that.

It’s clever that you choose the major tonality to support the “Ball and Chain” lyrics, which actually reveal how lucky you feel to have your particular ball and chain.
Trucks: I love that about Oliver. His stuff seems simple on the surface, but there’s always another layer or two underneath. The whole songwriting process was fun because it was so thought out. We asked ourselves, “If this is what a particular lyric means, what chord progression best illustrates that idea?”

“Don’t Let Me Slide” is another nice play on words.
Tedeschi: I had a big hand in that one, and Derek helped too. Wherever you see our names in the songwriting credits, Derek was involved in writing the lyrics, which most people don’t realize. He can sing too. He has very good pitch. I think that’s why his intonation is so good on guitar. We bounce melody and lyrical ideas off each other all the time. The other songwriter on that track was Gary Louris.
Trucks: When everybody in the room is operating at a certain level, it makes everybody else step up—or leave. The learning curve was huge at all times, and it made Susan and me get our thing together without even knowing it. The songwriting process made us solidify what this project was going to be.

What are your thoughts now, having done a record and significant touring?
Trucks: Playing in the Allman Brothers, my group, and the Clapton band—the bar is high. But I feel like this is the first time I’ve been in a band where it’s all happening now. You wear your influences on your sleeve, but you make music about what happened to you, not a life you didn’t lead. It’s important to be honest and see through your own lens.
I honestly feel like it’s the first time I’ve been in a band that I wouldn’t want to play after on a consistent basis. It doesn’t matter how good the musicians are or how good the chemistry is—a band takes time. You’ve got to feel it out, and you’ve got to gig. We’ve been road dogging it for the past six months, and the band has taken a quantum leap forward. It’s exciting to get offstage at a highly regarded venue such as the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco and see that look in the promoter’s eyes—something’s happening. It’s what we hoped for, and it’s fun to see it actually come to pass.

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